Children, Sexual Abuse, and Truth

Whether responsible judgements can be made about things that did or did not happen based on interviews with very young children is a topic that receives a lot of attention. Specifically, the question is whether pre-school children can tell us when they have been sexually abused and whether what they tell us can be believed. This is a complex issue and cannot be answered in simple yes/no terms. Rather, it requires an understanding of child development, an understanding of the kinds of events that prompt concern, and the process that leads to seeing events from the child’s perspective.

The development of children is multidimensional and continuous from birth through adolescence.

“Children have a physical, doing dimension. It incorporates their physical bodies, their potentials and capacities to do and behave, and most of what is visible in terms of their actions and activities. Part of each parent’s role is to help his or her children grow to respect and appreciate their physical abilities and skills, to know how to behave in a variety of situations, and to recognize and utilize their physical capacities and potentials. This physical, doing dimension starts at infancy and is central to kids’ adjustment throughout their ongoing, on-growing journey to adulthood.

“The same level of importance holds for the emotional dimension of children. Here are found feelings, fears and frustrations, sadness and joy, disappointment and excitement, love and hate, fun and futility. Growing children experience all of these emotions and need to learn how to interpret them, how to express them, and how to manage them. For example, kids must learn to express anger without having tantrums, to deal with despair and disappointment without becoming destructively depressed, to express love and joy without getting into harmful or inappropriate relationships. Within this dimension, children must learn to deal with the internal experience of emotions as well as how to express their feelings effectively and appropriately.

“Around the age of four or five the moral, spiritual dimension begins to emerge. Effectively helping children develop a solid sense of right and wrong, good and bad, requires that their parents are clear about their own values and beliefs in these areas. Success in this dimension is critical to success in the social dimension that emerges about the same time. When kids are about five or six, the social dimension becomes dominate and begins to interact with the other developing dimensions. The social dimension embraces the child’s potential to interact with other children and adults and to become socially effective and self-determined.

“By about eleven or twelve, the young person’s emerging sexual dimension begins dynamically interacting with the other developing dimensions. Sexual behavior and attitudes that are appropriate and inappropriate, healthy and unhealthy, effective and ineffective are best conveyed to maturing adolescents by parents who have thought through the issues.

“For younger children, ‘sexual’ behavior normally is not related to interests and interactions associated with ‘adult’ sexuality. Rather, it is related to physical and gender interest and curiosity. If ‘adult’ interests or specifically ‘sexual’ content is present, a specialized consultation is indicated to assess possible sexual abuse or inappropriate sexual experience.”